BY Matthew Skelhorne & Dalia Nardolillo
Every Wednesday afternoon, Taylor Seale walks down Sherbrooke street to pick up four-year-old Rufus, an Australian Shepherd she has been walking weekly for almost a year.
“He knows when I’m coming,” Seale says. “Every time I walk up his street, I see his little head poking out the window, and he jumps on the front door the closer I get to the house.”
When Seale enters the owner’s house, she grabs Rufus’ leash, a few doggy bags, and treats before they walk their usual hourly route from Notre-Dame-de-Grâce Avenue toward Westmount.
“Lots of people asked me to walk their dogs,” Seale continues. “If I had the time, I’d love to walk dogs every day.”
Independent dog walkers and companies offering dog-walking services have seen a boom in Montreal following the COVID shutdowns. One reason is the surge in pet adoptions during the pandemic.
There was an 18 per cent uptick in people welcoming a new pet in Canada during the first year of the pandemic, and a 33 per cent rise during its second year. As of 2022, the Canadian Animal Health Institute (CAHI) reported that 60 per cent of households in the country own a dog or a cat.
More dogs means more demand for CM Dog Walking. Cassandra Esposito and her sister Maria launched the dog walking business at the beginning of the pandemic and have not looked back since.
“We initially started this company part-time during our last year at university together,” Esposito says. Both sisters confirmed that most of their initial clients came from a previous dog daycare they used to work for but which closed due to zoning issues.
After two years and many dog walks, their part-time dog walking service turned into a flourishing business the Espositos are passionate about.
“Now we walk dogs full-time, nine to five, Monday to Friday,” Esposito says. “Dog walking has definitely opened the door to many new clients and overall opportunities in the pet industry.”
Not only are small businesses like CM Dog Walking seeing a high volume of clients, but many larger-scale businesses are as well.
“There’s definitely a higher demand for dog walking than before the pandemic,” confirms Walks & Wags owner Christina Jez, a pet service company based in Montreal. “Many people bought dogs during the pandemic because they were home. Now what’s happening is a lot of people that used to be working from home are going back to the office, so these people need help to take their dogs out.”
Jez added that with more dog owners requesting services, she could give more hours to her current employees around the island and even hire more people.
“They go hand in hand,” Jez continues. “The bigger the dog population gets in Montreal, the better it is for our industry.”
CAHI reported that between 2020 and 2022, 200,000 dogs and cats were welcomed into homes across Canada. Additionally, CAHI’s program director Emily Bond stated in a press release that animals provide many benefits for mental health.
“It comes as no surprise that the trends show an increase in both the Canadian dog and cat populations, with the largest increases happening from 2020-2022,” Bond said.
“I’m seeing a lot more dogs than normal in Montreal,” says Anne Streeter, a longtime animal advocate and current director for Animal Alliance of Canada, a non-profit organization in favor of animal protection. “I am convinced it’s because of the pandemic.”
Streeter also says that many new dog owners underestimated what it takes to care for a dog, leading them to look for pet services to meet their pets’ needs.
But the commitment proved too much for some new dog owners, so they returned their pets to shelters such as the SPCA.
Many of those who decided to keep their furry friends ended up shopping around for pet services.
With many barking dogs swarming the Esposito sisters every day at CM Dog Walking, they had to hire their first employee a few months ago to help cater to clients who have dogs with different needs.
“Cassandra and I specialize in pack-walking and making sure our dogs get along with each other during our walks,” Maria Esposito says. However, not all dogs can partake in a pack walk.
“Some dogs are too shy to be with a big group of dogs or simply don’t have the leash manners in a pack walk,” Esposito continues. “We hired our first employee to take on our solo clients, essentially the dogs that couldn’t pack walk.”
According to Pets Canada, the pet business industry’s growth is expanding beyond the streets.
“We are certainly seeing a lot of success in dog walking [since the pandemic],” says Pets Canada’s communications director Susan Dankert. “But we are also seeing increases in pet-sitting, grooming and more people attending our trade shows over the last few years.”
For the last 35 years, the organization has put on several annual trade shows in Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia, where many local pet businesses come together.
“It was never this busy,” confirms Dankert regarding the last few shows that occurred a few months ago.
From the dog walker, to a pet business owner, to an animal advocate, they all have one thing in common: their love and passion for their jobs and the animals in their care.
“We always had a strong passion while working with animals, especially dogs,” says Esposito. “They say if you find a job you love, you won’t ever work a day in your life and that’s exactly how we would describe the feeling.”
Seale could not agree more. At the end of her weekly walk with Rufus, she waves goodbye to him and his owners.
“Knowing that walking him is the highlight of his day makes it the best part of my day, no matter how I was feeling before picking him up,” Seale says. “I could not think of something better to do.”